Wednesday, June 29, 2005

A Fictitious Dialogue Between Paul Helm and John Sanders on Divine Providence (Part 1)

A good way to check how well you understand an opposing viewpoint is to try to make the strongest case you can in its defense. This is also a good exercise for cultivating charity toward those with whom we disagree. Intellectual virtue requires that while we contend vigorously for our own convictions, we nevertheless present our opponent's arguments in such a way that he or she feels that we've at least taken the time to understand them.

A few years back I took a class on divine providence and human action in which the professor assigned the task of writing a fictitious dialogue between John Sanders, an outspoken advocate of open theism, and Paul Helm, a Reformed theologian, with ourselves serving as moderators. Since I love efficiency and recycling, I thought I'd post it here.

If this is of interest to you, be sure to read Tim Challies' informative article on open theism in his series on challenges to the church.


KP: Dr. Helm and Dr. Sanders, it's a pleasure to meet you both. I've read your books on the providence of God and count it a great privilege to be able to discuss this matter with you. Thanks so much for taking time out of your busy schedules. Dr. Sanders, I know from reading The God Who Risks that you're familiar with Dr. Helm's The Providence of God. Dr. Helm, have you read Dr. Sanders' book?

PH: Yes, I have.

KP: Very good. Before we proceed, it might help if I tell you a little about why I'm so eager to discuss this subject with you. The bulk of my responsibilities as a pastor consists of counseling. Of course, the question of God's relationship to the events of life comes up frequently in the course of my counseling ministry. I can't tell you how many times I've sat across from someone whose life has been severely disrupted by such tragedies as sexual abuse, the death of a child, or the walking out of a spouse and been asked, "Where was God in all this?" Honestly, it's a question I've often hoped would never be asked and one that I often skirted. On one hand I wanted to distance God from any involvement in such atrocities, upholding his holiness and love as well as human freedom and culpability. Yet, I wanted, too, to affirm his power and sovereignty.

JS: I understand what you're saying, Keith. However, I don't think that we necessarily have to conceive of God's goodness as being in conflict with his sovereignty. Yes, he is fundamentally opposed to sin and evil. That is without question. Similarly, if we are to be faithful to the Bible we must also affirm His sovereignty. But a conflict only arises if by sovereignty we mean that God exhaustively controls everything that happens in the universe including the thoughts and actions of human beings. I reject this understanding. According to my view, God is sovereign in that he freely chose to create the kind of world that he has; a world inhabited by significantly free creatures capable of entering into genuinely personal relationships with Him; a world in which the future is open, waiting to be determined both by him and them.

I agree with you that what we're talking about here is far more than theoretical philosophy and theology. Suffering is real and anyone who has looked intently at the injustice, cruelty, and grief that is all too often a part of human existence, can't help but question what God's relationship to it all is. In fact, my own brother's tragic death a few years ago was a major factor in my thinking about divine providence as much as I have.

KP: When I read about that I couldn't help wondering how big a part the loss of your brother played in the formulation of your model of providence.

JS: Well, as I mention in the book, I was a nominal Methodist at the time and didn't believe that God caused everything that happens so it's not like the accident led me to significantly alter my beliefs.

KP: That may be so. But I did find it interesting that your initial response was to ask God why he killed your brother.

JS: Well, the view that God exercises specific as opposed to general sovereignty so permeates our culture that I probably just reacted that way out of conditioning.

KP: I see. Well, I'm getting ahead of myself, anyway. I want to come back to the problem of evil later but for now I'd like to focus on the broader issues that lead the two of you to think so differently. Dr. Helm, you've been quiet. Is there anything you'd like to add?

PH: Yes, there is. I agree with John that God's goodness and sovereignty are not in conflict with one another. He does not delight in sin for his very nature is the absolute standard of righteousness and justice. I also understand the Scriptures to simultaneously affirm that humans are morally accountable for their actions and God is absolutely sovereign over all that comes to pass, including the free actions of human beings. This is a substantial difference between John and me. I hold to a compatibilist view of freedom according to which human choices are free to the extent that they are in accordance with the subject's desires. In other words, I am free in making a particular choice if I choose what I really want and am not forced to choose something against my will.

John, on the other hand, believes that people are only free if they have what is called libertarian freedom. According to this notion of freedom, a choice is only free if it is not causally determined. All things being equal, a person could choose contrary to what he actually did in the exact same circumstances. I don't mean any offense, but in my opinion, it's the desire to preserve this preconceived and unbiblical concept of human freedom that motivates John and other proponents of so-called "relational" or "freewill" theism to advocate the model that they do.

JS: Paul, that's a very common accusation from those from the theological tradition that you represent but I have to say it's simply untrue. It's not the wish to protect some cherished view of human freedom that leads me and others to arrive at the conclusions we do. Rather, it's the desire to be faithful to what God has revealed concerning his divine project. Although God is self-sufficient and in need of nothing outside of himself, and although there has always been love and fellowship between the members of the Trinity, nevertheless, he freely chose to create us for the purpose of entering into a genuine, give-and-take love relationship with him.
Love cannot be forced or manipulated. The nature of personal relationships requires that they be reciprocal and that both parties in the relationship are capable of freely responding to each other. I don't think anyone here will deny that the Scriptures throughout portray God as one who longs for the love of his people and responds to their actions, taking their requests into consideration. He grieved over the sin that entered the world through Adam and Eve's rebellion. The Bible even goes so far as to say that his heart was filled with pain in Genesis 6:6. This was obviously his reaction because something he did not intend occurred. When Moses interceded with him concerning his plan to exterminate the Israelites, the Lord changed his mind. These are just a few examples that demonstrate that God is somehow conditioned by human actions.
Now, I know that the classical theists will say that these are only anthropomorphisms, but my question then is how he knows that they are not to be taken literally. I think that what leads him to conclude that such language is only figurative is a greater reliance on extrabiblical, abstract reasoning about the divine nature than on God's revelation in history especially in the person of Jesus Christ. Underlying the classical theistic model is the Platonic assumption that perfection must be static since any change would necessarily be a change toward imperfection. I submit that this assumption is logically fallacious, not to mention contrary to the portrait of God offered in the Old and New Testaments.

KP: May I jump in here, Dr. Sanders? We all agree that the Bible does, in fact, use language that describes God as changing his mind, being ignorant of certain facts, and vacillating in his emotional life in response to human decisions. It also portrays people as acting contrary to God's will. There are also a number of texts that affirm that God is unchanging, knowledgeable of not only the past and present but also of the future, and in control of all things. Now, Dr. Sanders, you charge the classical model with neglecting or misinterpreting some biblical texts due to a precommitment to certain philosophical assumptions. I'm curious about the criterion you use to decide that those passages that speak of God as being subject to change and disappointment should take precedence over those that don't. I realize that you couldn't possibly have dealt with all of the relevant texts in your book, but I have to say that I was surprised by your failure to deal with some of the most problematic ones for your thesis. Take Ephesians 1:11, for example: "In him we were also chosen having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will." This appears to be very good support for specific sovereignty, doesn't it?

JS: As for the criterion we should use to determine which set of biblical texts should serve as "control" texts, again I'd have to say that we have to interpret everything in light of what it is that God has revealed is His purpose for creating the world He has. And you're right, I couldn't possibly have dealt with all the relevant biblical material. However, I really don't see the verse you mentioned as being at all problematic for my position. Of course God works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will. But we have to be clear about what that purpose is. As I've already said, his purpose is to invite and persuade individuals into a loving relationship with him through Christ. He cannot guarantee that people will favorably respond but he makes use of all his wisdom, competence, and resourcefulness to accomplish that purpose as best he can. In creating the kind of world in which such relationships are possible, God chose to limit his power. Could he have created a world in which He controlled every detail, including the actions of people? Of course! However, this would not have allowed for authentic personal relationships between God and humans.

To be continued....


Franklin Mason said...

I immensely enjoyed this little dialogue. The interlocutors seemed to evince a quite sophisticated and, it seems to me, correct view of the interpretation of Scripture. One has to read not this or that passage in isolation. Rather one has to read the whole of it and come to a view about the,as it were, 'spirit' of the text; and then one goes back to passages that might seem to conflict with the spirit of the text and decide how best to deal with them. (One can do two things in such cases, I would suppose: one can offer a novel interpretation on which the appearance of conflict disappears, or one can reject the text as authoratative if interpreted literally.)

At one time, I sided with the 'open theism' side of this debate. My reason was not theological but rather had to do with a certain view of the nature of time. I defended a view that has come to be called 'Presentism'. It is the view that only the present is real. If conjoined to the claim (a claim that seems to me wholly plausible) that one can know a thing only if that thing is real, it follows that God does not know the future. (I was quick to add at this point that this did not in any way imply imperfection in God's knowledge. For omniscience entails only that a being know all truths, and if Presentism is true there are no truths about the future.) Of course God may be able to make sure predictions about the future. But this is not yet knowledge; and, I would guess, one cannot make sure predictions about what we freely do.

One last little note. I claim to know few philosohpical claims, but here's one that seems certain to me: if there were causes that predated me, causes sufficient to determine what it is that I now do, what I now do is not done freely. I suppose that this entails a libertarian concept of freedom.

KP said...

Thanks for the feedback, Franklin. I'm glad you enjoyed the exchange so far and hope you'll read it in its entirety.

Hermeneutics is definitely an important element of the debate between classical and open theists. In fact, the prof for whom I wrote this commented that I could have done more on the topic.

I also agree with you that it's wrong to approach the Bible as though it consists of atoms of meaning (i.e., verses) independent of a broader context.

From how you've defined "presentism," it seems that a necessary conclusion, beyond that of denying God knowledge of the future, is that God has no knowledge of the past either. Do you agree?

Yes, yours is a libertarian understanding of freedom.